An elderly woman loses her husband of 60 years to cancer right before the holiday season. Like so many others who have experienced this, she slips into a state of loneliness and depression. Christmas was her husband’s favorite holiday, and for the first time in decades, he won’t be there to celebrate it with her. She feels completely hopeless, like she will never be happy again. But there is a remedy that could bring her back to herself, and it’s not the latest therapy or pill. It’s something much simpler – people.
Recently, researchers have found that social interaction and belonging to a group is one of the most effective ways to combat depression. A study from the University of Queensland found that those who struggle with anxiety and depression can find relief in group settings where they say they feel supported and “in it together.” “We were able to find clear evidence that joining groups, and coming to identify with them, can alleviate depression,” said study conductor Dr. Andrew Haslam.
Not only does social interaction help combat the holiday blues, it can also keep seniors healthy year-round. Along with a balanced diet and exercise, social stimulation can provide several physical and mental benefits. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, some health benefits of social interaction in elderly adults include:
- Reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk for mental health issues such as depression
Some of the risks of social isolation include loneliness and depression, being less physically active, high blood pressure, and a greater risk of death. While some cases cannot be avoided, dementia and depression can be avoided by keeping the mind stimulated with social interaction. A recent study from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that seniors who are highly social have a 70 percent lower rate of cognitive decline than their less social peers.
According to the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, a 2011 study examined how changing social connections over time influenced health. Researchers surveyed a group of adults 60 and older multiple times from 1986 to 2002, asking them about their frequency of social activities like visiting friends and family, attending meetings, volunteering, and participating in clubs or programs. The results showed that those who had high initial levels of social engagement that only slightly decreased over time and those who had high or medium levels of engagement that increased over time developed cognitive and physical limitations more slowly than those with low levels of engagement that decreased over time.
“People have some control over their social lives, so it is encouraging to find that something many people find enjoyable—socializing with others—can benefit their cognitive and physical health,” said study author Patricia A. Thomas, Ph.D., of the Population Research Center at University of Texas at Austin.
How to Stay Socially Engaged
There are several ways for seniors to stay socially engaged and become part of a group that will support them. Senior centers are a great place to start if a senior is looking for ideas. According to the National Council on Aging, there are nearly 15 million senior centers in the US, and around 10 million seniors use their services each year. Of those who regularly visit their local senior center, more than six out of 10 said it’s their sole source of daily interaction with others. Senior centers offer clubs, classes, and many other opportunities to socialize with others.
Maintaining close personal relationships with family, friends, neighbors, etc. is vital to a senior’s health, as it helps fight feelings of isolation and depression. While seeing these people in person is certainly important, email and social media networks like Facebook have made it easier than ever to stay connected to loved ones near and far. A study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that Internet use was associated with a 30 percent decrease in depressive symptoms.
If a senior is still able, going back to work is a great way to socialize as well as stay busy. Most seniors have extra time on their hands, which gives them the opportunity to find new hobbies or rediscover old ones. For those who love to travel, there are many senior-friendly travel packages that include transportation, lodging, and meals, as well as giving them the chance to socialize with other elderly travelers.
Senior centers and assisted living communities usually offer groups and classes that seniors can join to learn and have fun while socializing with others. Seniors that love to stay active can join a bowling, tennis, or golf team, or sign up for a group exercise class. Stimulating mind games can also become a social sport in crossword puzzle and Sudoku clubs, while also helping prevent dementia and improving mental health.
Just because someone is older doesn’t mean they can’t learn something new. Many universities and colleges have classes specifically for older adults, and will often waive assignments and tests for seniors. If a senior has always wanted to learn a new language or more about computer technology, taking classes will stimulate the mind and allow them to interact with other students.
Volunteering in the community allows seniors to network socially while making a positive impact. One can help at-risk youth by becoming a foster grandparent, or help teach youngsters to read through a literacy program. Soup kitchens and clothing drives allow seniors to assist the homeless. Getting out and helping the community with others can improve mental health and give an overall sense of purpose. Grandparents can also offer to watch their grandchildren during the day, which will provide company as well as extra bonding time. Staying socially engaged almost always requires that seniors and their loved ones be proactive and look for opportunities, but the physical and mental health benefits are worth it.
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.